She’s won an Oscar, a Tony, two Golden Globes and numerous BAFTAs and Olivier awards, but for Dame Judi Dench her latest performance has particular poignancy.
The 88-year-old actress is one of the stars of Allelujah, a film about a fictionalised Yorkshire hospital battling closure as its staff struggle to find beds for its elderly patients.
Dame Judi told Sky News: “Both my father and my eldest brother were doctors… I used to go on rounds with my father. He’d have a list in the morning with around 40 people to see. And we would go, and I would sit in the car with the dog and he’d go in and then come out again.
“There was a wonderful repartee between him and his patients – always a chat on the doorstep. [They’d say] ‘Come in’, and he’d come out with some eggs, and that was wonderful. And I think that’s lost in a way now.”
Dame Judi plays an elderly patient in the movie, which is based on the 2018 play of the same name by playwright Alan Bennett, also 88, and adapted for screen over lockdown.
Directed by Richard Eyre, a frequent collaborator of Dame Judi’s, and adapted for the screen by Call The Midwife writer Heidi Thomas, the storyline around NHS battles with government officials couldn’t be more timely amid ongoing NHS strikes.
It’s been described by its makers as “a love letter” to the NHS, a sentiment heartily echoed by Dench, who was just 13-years-old when the National Health Service was founded.
It’s a service she says we must value.
“This is about the debt we owe to the NHS and for what they’ve done for us over the last three to two to three years and what we owe them and what we were all out clapping in the streets for,” she said. “And that isn’t something that should just end, it should go on and magnify.”
Set on a geriatric ward, the film mixes Bennett’s trademark humour with the gritty realities of hospital life, while posing difficult questions about how we care for our elderly.
Jennifer Saunders, who plays Sister Gilpin in the film – a nurse running the ward with an iron-will and unyielding efficiency – says she drew on personal experience for the role.
She told Sky News: “My mother had died just before we made the film, and so I got to understand what caring and end of life care is. And my admiration just went through the roof.
“These people do it from love… and being undervalued and underappreciated and overworked. And it’s not fair.”
Bally Gill, who plays idealistic young medic Dr Valentine, lost a family member shortly after filming. He told Sky News that after experiencing end of life care within the NHS fist hand, his admiration for its medical professionals has only increased.
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“We can pretend, and we can put on the costumes and say the words, but, you know, to do that job day in, day out with feeling underpaid, undervalued and underappreciated, this is such a tough thing to do. And I’m just fully, fully appreciative of the NHS and what it provides.”
With discussions around the NHS becoming increasingly politicised, and with more people leaving the health service than ever before, it’s a subject that isn’t likely to fall away from the headlines any time soon.
Also starring Derek Jacobi, David Bradley and Russell Tovey, Allelujah is in UK cinemas now.